The Tennessee Titans are a prime regression candidate this season after tying for the AFC's best record last year.
Since Mike Vrabel took over as the team's head coach, the Titans posted a 41-24 record with tangible improvement every season and back-to-back division titles during the last two. Tennessee plays a fundamentally sound, smart and hard-nosed brand of football under Vrabel's direction. None of that is going to change. But circumstances do.
The same formula that's led to so much success will be difficult to replicate based on multiple factors, involving injuries, personnel changes and overall improvement found within their own division and conference.
As the old football axiom states, "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse."
Tennessee's window to compete among the AFC's best just may have closed completely with a fresh start possibly needed in the near future.
Unlike most professional football franchises where the quarterback defines their status, the Titans are built around the skills of a unique and dominant running back. Derrick Henry is an all-time great. The organization rewarded its feature back by reworking his deal this week and giving him a $2 million raise to make him the game's highest-paid running back at $14 million this season, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. On the surface, the bump in pay is a goodwill gesture based on expectations of Henry returning to form after last year's injury-plagued season, while laying the groundwork for a potential contract extension next offseason.
The deal could also signal something else. Without any added years, Henry is only signed through the 2023 campaign. Tennessee has this season to see which direction the franchise wants to go, as it pertains to the running back's future.
Henry is the game's top workhorse when he's healthy. The final caveat to the previous sentence is vital to the direction of Tennessee's franchise.
Running backs don't get better over time. Generally, the accumulation of wear and tear from so many carries eventually breaks down their bodies, thus limiting what made them so effective in the first place. Henry suffered a Jones fracture last season and missed nine regular-season contests. The injury serves as the first indication the 6'3", 247-pound ball-carrier won't be able to handle the same type of workload he previously did.
The Titans staff—both on the training side and the coaches—understands the 28-year-old needs to be managed to make sure he's fresh.
"Derrick's a volume guy," general manager Jon Robinson said, per ESPN's Turron Davenport. "He wants the ball. He likes it when we give it to him. That's a balance that you have to, from a coaching standpoint with trainers, with the strength coaches, just figure out what's best for the football team. The most important thing is the availability of the player a lot of times, more so than the ability of the player."
Henry carried the ball 900 times over the last three seasons. The number doesn't even include his postseason workload or receptions. For comparison, Nick Chubb, who's often in the discussion with Henry as the game's best back, carried the ball 184 fewer times while playing in three more games during the same span.
Tennessee's offensive focal point is getting a little older, he's now a little more banged up than he has been and the team may look to pull back on his usage rate. These factors may signal a slightly less effective season for the two-time rushing leader.
With a different offensive status quo, quarterback Ryan Tannehill will need more help from the rest of the skill positions. But the Titans surprisingly traded A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles during this year's NFL draft.
Tennessee used the first-round pick it acquired for the wide receiver and selected his replacement, though no one should expect Treylon Burks to immediately fill what Brown provided with nearly 3,000 yards during his first three seasons.
"...the Titans have big plans for Burks and would like to feature him prominently in the passing game," ESPN's Dave Graziano reported.
Burks should be an excellent addition to the lineup, and he's a talented target. Yet he struggled with conditioning in the spring and practiced/played through some dings during the preseason. Like most rookies, the learning curve might take a little time before he becomes an offensive focal point.
Robert Woods, on the other hand, is a proven veteran capable of serving as Tennessee's WR1. Woods is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in November. The 30-year-old veteran, whom the Titans acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams, appears to be running and cutting well off the injured knee, per Davenport.
A transition will occur no matter what since four of Tennessee's top five receivers from last season are no longer on the roster.
In order for the run and pass games to be effective, the big boys up front must be steady and reliable. Left guard will be downgraded after three standout seasons from Rodger Saffold, who signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason as a free agent. Saffold excelled as a run-blocker and graded as the league's 11th-best guard in the ground game, per Pro Football Focus.
Aaron Brewer started five games last season, but he'll be a full-time starter for the first time in his professional career once the upcoming campaign begins. He's an undersized blocker (6'1", 274 pounds), who brings a completely different skill set compared to Saffold. Obviously, Brewer isn't nearly as powerful at the point of attack. But he battles and shows excellent movement skills.
At right tackle, third-round rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere won the job. The position itself has been a thorn in the Titans' side since Jack Conklin left in free agency two years ago. Petit-Frere's early emergence is a positive, though he'll experience his share of rookie mistakes. His inclusion to the lineup may be better for the team long term with some growing pains in the near future.
Defensively, the Titans are extremely talented. Their elite defensive front remains intact and the secondary is loaded, particularly if last year's first-round draft pick, Caleb Farley, can stay healthy.
Unfortunately, Harold Landry III suffered a torn ACL during practice Thursday, per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. Landry earned a five-year, $87.5 million contract extension this offseason after he set a career high and ranked 10th overall last year with 12 sacks. His loss will dramatically affect how Tennessee can attack the edges.
Bud Dupree can still be found on the other side of the defense, but he struggled during his first season with the Titans. Now, he won't be bookended by one the league's most natural and fluid pass-rushers.
Tennessee's defense should still field a top-notch defense. But the loss of a top performer will decrease some of the unit's effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the AFC South should be far more competitive. The Indianapolis Colts are now the betting favorite after adding veteran quarterback Matt Ryan to the lineup. The Houston Texans are in the second year of their rebuild. And the Jacksonville Jaguars should be far more difficult to handle since head coach Doug Pederson cultivated a professional environment compared to Urban Meyer's disastrous tenure.
Across the AFC, a meat grinder awaits.
The Buffalo Bills feature arguably the deepest roster in all of football with an MVP candidate in quarterback Josh Allen. The reigning Super Bowl representatives, the Cincinnati Bengals, upgraded their offensive line to properly protect rising star Joe Burrow. The Baltimore Ravens are far healthier after being decimated by injuries last season. The Miami Dolphins acquired Tyreek Hill and signed Terron Armstead this offseason. The AFC West is stacked with the always reliable Kansas City Chiefs and additions of Russell Wilson, Davante Adams and Khalil Mack to the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively.
Vrabel will have the Titans prepared and competitive. Even so, Tennessee isn't a better team today than a year ago. As such, expectations should be tempered because a postseason bid might be the best the team can offer this fall. Even that may be asking too much.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.